Defense focuses on finishing plays

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – With the first chapter of North Carolina's 2004 season now written, many questions remain concerning how far its defense has come. In a 49-38 win over Division I-AA William & Mary, the Tar Heels showed there is still considerable "room" for improvement when their opponent has the ball.

"There are many ‘rooms,'" UNC coach John Bunting said during his weekly press conference at the Kenan Football Center on Tuesday. "One is making a play when we have the chance."

At the end of the day last Saturday, the Tar Heels had surrendered 442 yards of total offense – without a sack, a fumble recovery or an interception. Missed tackles were a major bugaboo. Once again, the offense had to ring up a big number on the scoreboard to keep pace with the defensive struggles.

Carolina pass rushers had the Tribe's slippery quarterback Lang Campbell in their crosshairs numerous times only to see him escape and burn them after the over-pursuit.

"I can relate to it totally," Bunting said. "Your eyes get big, you're closing in on the quarterback and you know you only have a certain amount of time. You start to lunge and over-stride. Then the quarterback makes one simple move left or right, and you're on the ground.

"It's an effort to get to the quarterback with a little too much excitement in your head, which transfers to your feet. You lunge, as opposed to gathering and getting your feet underneath you. You can't play football with one foot in the air and in poor football position."

Fred Sparkman, for one, was in position to make two sacks, but came up empty-handed.

"Ray Lewis is one of the best players in the NFL, but he misses tackles; everyone does," senior strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. "It comes with the game and all out effort. As long as you give all out effort, if you miss a tackle, you've got 10 other guys beside you that should be able to make the play, too. You just have to have faith in your teammates when you make mistakes."

But no one had any delusions that Carolina would go from having one of the worst defensive units in the nation last year to sudden greatness this season. At least there was pressure on the quarterback and enough speed to be in position to miss tackles – characteristics that rarely existed from 2002 through 2003.

"It's a matter of being in control when you get that opportunity, especially if you're unblocked," Bunting said. "We had a lot of opportunities in the scheme that we played. And as far as how hard our kids played, I have no problem with. We've got to coach them better and they've got to respond better."

In Sensabaugh, Carolina has truly found its defensive leader, albeit he is only eligible for this year only. He offered his assessment after just his first official game in a Carolina uniform.

"At times I think we were overaggressive," said the transfer from East Tennessee State. "We missed quite a few tackles, but we're going to get that straight. We were overanxious, but it's good to see everybody out there hustling to the ball and being excited about making plays.

"It was good to go out there and get the jitters out of the way, so next week we'll be ready to go out there and play. We're going to bounce back."

Bunting said the defense must finish plays better this Saturday, when UNC travels to Charlottesville to take on 16th ranked Virginia for a 3:30 p.m. game to be televised by ABC.

Both teams will enter the match-up undefeated for only the third time in the South's oldest rivalry that spans 112 years. The Cavaliers won their opener at Temple, 44-14.

The Tar Heels will go off has heavy underdogs in search of their first win at Scott Stadium, since taking a 17-14 decision in 1981 – a fact Bunting is simply tired of hearing about.

Most coaches, including Bunting, employ a philosophy that a team improves the most between the first and second games of the season. The Tar Heels' defense will have to prove the belief in spades, if they expect to have success against the Cavaliers.

"There offensive line against Temple was as good as I've seen since I've been here," Bunting said. "We're going to have to have our best game in three years to have an opportunity to win."

Inside Carolina Top Stories